Tuesday, June 16, 2015

"Show" V. "Tell" in Fiction

I recently presented a workshop on the differences between “showing” in your writing vs. “telling” in your writing. I thought I’d share some of that workshop here, for you!


Have you ever been told that you “tell” too much in your writing; that you need to “show” more? What does that even mean?

“Show, don’t tell.”

When an agent or editor says this about your writing, they mean:
1. Don’t just tell me the story…show me, using your words.
2. Place the reader INTO the story. This is especially important in first person POV—but also equally important in close third.
3. Use the senses to bring the reader along for the ride. Sight, Sound, Touch, Taste, Smell.
4. Use specificity

For example…in my first draft of a YA contemporary romance, I might describe the love interest this way. This is Telling:

I watched John walk into the room. He was hot; maybe the best looking boy I’d ever seen.

My first draft is always messy. It's full of telling. That's okay. When you revise, you'll use more detail to make the story come alive. Rewriting the scene by using specificity and the senses, here’s my new introduction. This is Showing:

John didn’t walk into the cafeteria. He swaggered like the Mayor of Westfield High School, as he shook hands and slapped shoulders. If there had been a baby somewhere, he would have kissed it. Normally, that sort of attitude makes my stomach turn, but not today. I couldn’t take my eyes off him.  He even nodded at the lunch ladies. When he got to my table, our eyes met for the briefest of moments, and I felt like the only girl in the world.

You can add character detail, voice, and setting at the same time. This is showing. This is what they mean.

What’s the Difference?

When you “show,” use physical attributes, or active descriptions to convey emotion—without “telling” the reader what the character is feeling.

When you “show,” the reader should be able to infer emotion or character trait based on the language you’ve chosen.

You *do* need to be careful, you don’t need to show absolutely everything, especially if it’s not important to the forward motion of the plot. You risk the danger of being too lengthy or detailed if you’re not careful. NO three page descriptions of the woods.

When you “tell,” the narrative or character “tells” the reader the emotion or action.

“Telling” is often used to move the action along quickly or tell necessary backstory in a shorter word count.

You run the risk of “info dump” if you tell all the backstory this way.

Use a combination of the two to amp up your storytelling!


  1. Imagine a movie scene in your head—emotion is often conveyed with music. Write all the detail that you see. No “floating” heads of dialogue—be sure to describe where people are standing, what their hands are doing, noises in the room, where they are.
  2. Dr. Albert Mehrabian, author of Silent Messages, conducted several studies on nonverbal communication. He found that 7% of any message is conveyed through words, 38% through certain vocal elements, and 55% through nonverbal elements (facial expressions, gestures, posture, etc). convey nonverbal communication in your writing.
  3. Consider investing in the Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman to get a sense of how physical movement conveys emotion.
Try some Writing Examples

  1. Jarrod was sick
  • Brainstorm what the sick room looks like; surroundings, smells, sounds. What does Jarrod look like? Taste in mouth, sensations of being sick?
  • Write a paragraph “showing” us Jarrod.
Do the same for these two examples:

2.      The house was haunted.
3.     The pizza was delicious.